The Lone Bellow recorded their new album at Roy Orbison’s house
When we speak with Zach Williams, guitarist and lead vocalist for the Lone Bellow, it’s the day after the tenth anniversary of the band’s debut. The self-titled 2013 album—featuring Williams, along with Kanene Donehey Pipkin on mandolin, bass, keyboard, and vocals and Brian Elmquist on guitar and vocals—gained plaudits for its emotionally-hefty lyrics, assured harmonies, and passionate musical delivery and set the band on a course to the success which they’re currently still enjoying.
The Lone Bellow’s latest, Love Songs for Losers, came out in early November last year, and the band just kicked off the second leg of their tour in support of the Dualtone release, which stops at Knuckleheads on Tuesday, January 31. We begin the interview by asking how that first leg went for the band.
“Oh, it was beautiful,” says Williams by phone from Nashville. “I mean, we started with opening for Maren Morris at some of the most epic places in America—Red Rocks—and all the venues were outdoors. It was just stunning. And then, our headline tour—it’s so many fun stops from Chicago to the Ryman in Nashville, 9:30 Club in DC, and Webster Hall.”
The band is “just slamming right now,” Williams explains, saying that it’s so nice to be able to play what he describes as “the full sonic option” after having not been able to do that for a minute. The frontman describes going back out on the road as “so fun” after not playing for some time, but also with 11 new songs.
“I love these new songs,” says Williams. “This is music that we produced ourselves, and we used our band to do it. Everybody has so much ownership in what we’re doing. I love singing ‘Honey’ and ‘Wherever Your Heart Is’ and ‘I’m in Love,’ and the whole journey is so fun.”
Williams alludes to the fact that his bandmates Elmquist and Pipkin worked as producers on Love Songs for Losers, making it very much a family production as opposed to what the Lone Bellow has done in the past, working with others, like Aaron Dessner of The National. Williams believes having band members produce this record has been great because he feels like they all wore different hats.
“We’ve always wanted to see what it would be like with the three of us producing a record together without somebody behind the wheel that’s done it a whole lot,” Williams says. “Having Aaron Dessner and Dave Cobb and even Charlie Peacock way back in the day—not having those heavy hitters in the room that you can just lean on, I think it was something that we wanted to try to do and it was a way to stretch ourselves and just face a little nagging fear that we’ve always had.”
“Can we produce our own music or are we always gonna have to rely on somebody else to come in and help us do the music and we’ll write the songs and sing ’em, kind of thing,” Williams says in reference to fear, but he that crossing over that border of the three of them producing this record together was a beautiful thing, being able to stretch themselves, trying to accomplish all the things that we wanted to, and doing so successfully.
The story of where the Lone Bellow recorded Love Songs for Losers is just as fascinating as how they recorded the album. The band made the record at Roy Orbison’s old house, right next door to Johnny Cash’s house.
“The sideyard is actually a grove Johnny Cash planted for Roy Orbison in memory of his children that passed away and of the house that sat right there,” Williams says with some reverence. “It was just incredibly rich with history.”
Williams goes on to explain that his friend, the actor Marc Menchaca, who’s appeared in several of the Lone Bellow’s music videos, was the one who initially clued him into the location.
“He called me one day, and he was like, ‘Hey, I found these abandoned cabins in Nashville—will you go look at ’em for me?’” Williams says. “I was like, ‘Yeah, man,’ so I went out. Two of ’em had burned down, and the other two were completely dilapidated, squatters living in there, and it was pretty creepy.”
Williams claims he noticed this heart carved on one of the still-standing chimneys and started asking around as to what it might mean. He went down to the local grocery store in town and asked, “Hey, you guys know about some builder that used to carve hearts in these chimneys?” The old man behind the counter immediately responded with, “Oh, yeah—that’s Braxton Dixon. He passed a few years ago. ”
“He told me the guy’s whole story,” says Williams. “He was like, this guy who built 65 houses while alive, from 14 to 93. He built houses for all the country music greats. He would make a road trip around the country every time he built a house, and he would build these houses out of old barns and cabins that he’d found in rural America.”
After that, Williams did a little bit of research and found Braxton Dixon’s widow. He met with her and heard incredible stories, like back when Bob Dylan did his Nashville Skyline project, Johnny Cash tried to get Dixon to build Dylan a house on the same hill. Sadly, many of Braxton Dixon’s homes are no longer standing—Tammy Wynette’s and Johnny Cash’s homes both burned down—but talking to Braxton’s widow, Williams discovered that Roy Orbison’s house sat abandoned.
“I was like, ‘What?’” William says. “So I found the man that owned it, and I wrote him a letter and just pitched him the idea. I was like, ‘Hey, man, I want to make your house a studio again. What do you think?’ He called me up, and he was like, ‘I love it.’ He gave us the house for free for several weeks, and we built a studio in there, and man, it was just incredibly inspiring.”
That inspiration really comes through on the album, too. It’s rare for a band, 10 years after their debut and on their fifth album, to have this much verve and energy going into a project, but it shines through on Love Songs for Losers. We ask Williams if it was the place and its history, or was it post-COVID excitement or some combination of all of that.
“I think it was a combination of the songs we were writing, for one,” Williams says. “I think, subconsciously, we knew that we were gonna make the record in Roy’s house, We ended up writing a lot of just unabashed love songs and definitely had him in mind.”
Williams claims it was the excitement and nervous tension of producing the record themselves and carrying that on their own, as well as definitely the story of the house just seeping into their bones.
“This thing’s like 7,500 square feet cabin with two bedrooms that are probably 400 square feet apiece, and the rest of the house is like huge party living rooms,” Williams says. “It was really fun and beautiful during the day, and it got straight-up haunted at night.”
The Lone Bellow plays Knuckleheads on Tuesday, January 31. Details on that show here.